A septet of Manhattan buildings becomes the setting for this study of prewar comings and goings on the part of their wealthy, famous, and criminal inhabitants.
Pity Bernard McMahon, aka Bennie the Bum, who, in 1934, had the bad fortune to blow his kneecap off accidentally after taking part in a notorious armed robbery that “was then the most lucrative armored car heist in United States history.” Bennie bled out and died, making his association with Legs Diamond all the more ironic—though, as New York Times reporter and editor Wakin writes, John Dillinger may also have played a part in the caper, and just about anyone who was anyone in the Gotham crime scene came under suspicion. McMahon’s case lies at the heart of the book, which centers on a group of seven stately Beaux Arts buildings on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, buildings whose fortunes have waxed and waned and waxed again. Among the inhabitants he profiles are Marion Davies, the one-time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and Lucretia Davis, heir to a baking powder fortune, who, as a widow, “shocked and outraged the circle of family who experienced her benevolence” by marrying her chauffeur, then had the marriage annulled but sold off one of the buildings in order, Wakin speculates, to buy him off. Other figures in the book include Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese inventor well-known in his native land but obscure here; members of the of-pencil-fame Faber family; and jazz great Duke Ellington. Wakin never goes deep, and though his book is gossipy fun, it might have been more effective if confined to the Rubel heist itself, which is a fascinating case study in crime and (eventual) punishment in the heyday of organized crime. Some of the force of that story is diluted by side tracks into the less interesting, though still meaningful, threads involving the lesser players.
For fans of New York–iana, including historic preservation buffs as well as collectors of true crime, eccentrics, and odd moments.